Russell Westbrook accepting a role off the bench and sticking with it despite losses has been one of the cooler stories in the NBA this season. He deserves a ton of credit for all of that (and receives it on basically every national telecast), but what the Lakers can’t afford to do is mistake improvement for actual production. With Anthony Davis out for the foreseeable future, if Rob Pelinka wants to save this season, he still needs to move Westbrook, and soon.
Davis and LeBron James, at their best, widen margins for error on either side of the ball. With Davis now gone for an unknown length of time and James starting to look more like himself — but still clearly working to recover from a couple early season nagging injuries — the Lakers can’t afford to be as bad on the margins as they’ve been. When they traded for him, Westbrook was supposed to help with those margins, at least in theory, but it clearly hasn’t played out that way.
And look, if Davis is indeed out for a longer stretch than this initial month (as honestly seems to be the case based on how everyone involved has handled the information), then there probably is no point in trying to save this season. The Lakers are only ever going to go as far as James and Davis will take them and with one out at least a month, may as well start positioning yourself for next year and beyond.
That said, if the Lakers think this season can be saved, then they can’t afford to wait for Davis to come back to address the many issues with this roster, and their best path in that regard is still turning Westbrook’s $47 million into a few role players on smaller deals — preferably on the wing.
The other part of this is Westbrook’s play, itself. He has never shot this poorly from the floor since his rookie season. He’s still one of the league’s worst three-point shooters. He’s turning the ball over more than any other player per 48 minutes. On top of all that he’s still an inconsistent defender.
Westbrook may be better than he was last year, but by no means has he been good, and he’s playing the fifth most minutes per game.
So between Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn and Patrick Beverley, the Lakers arguably have three of the most inefficient guards in the NBA, all on expiring contracts, and all of whom are taking minutes from players who probably are more deserving at this stage of their careers — though Nunn has basically been taken out of the rotation. The Lakers could hope to get away with this with James and Davis playing at their optimal levels, but that won’t be the case for at least a month and probably longer.
The last point on this extends beyond just this season.
If Westbrook, Nunn and Beverley are traded for someone whose contract extends beyond this season or who the Lakers are confident they can re-sign, then organizationally, they can achieve some forward momentum. We couldn’t say that about last year. It was just a loss, outside of finding Austin Reaves. Sure, the Lakers can talk about being championship or bust, but that isn’t how cultures are built and nurtured. At some point, you need to make progress, and consecutive lost seasons actively deter that idea.
So sure, we can all acknowledge how cool it’s been to watch Westbrook potentially extend his career by accepting the role Darvin Ham has outlined for him, but he still isn’t who the Lakers need to hopefully turn this season around or, at the very least, survive the next month or so. If saving this season is even remotely on the table, they do not have the luxury of time.
This week on “The Anthony Irwin Show,” I spoke to Jovan Buha of The Athletic about which trades the Lakers are working on, Davis’ injury and the lack of transparency on it, the likelihood of a Westbrook trade and more.
And for a short-form recap pod, check out Lakers Lowdown, in which Anthony Irwin recaps the previous day’s news and gets you ready for the day ahead in LakerLand, every weekday morning on the Silver Screen & Roll Podcast feed.